Coghill board member directs staff not to give ‘F’s

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A Mary D. Coghill Charter School board member told school employees via email they could not give students a final grade of less than a ‘D’ to end the semester or year. It’s unclear how many students may have been affected, but New Orleans school district officials aren’t pleased with the board member for what they say is overstepping his role. 

Kelli Peterson, senior equity and accountability officer at NOLA Public Schools — the recently rebranded name for the Orleans Parish school district — issued a so-called “level 1” notice of non-compliance to Better Choice Foundation, which runs the Gentilly Woods elementary school, on June 3. 

According to Peterson, board member Eric Jones emailed “Coghill faculty and staff stating that based on board policy, a scholar should not receive less than a grade D on their end of quarter or semester grade.”

The news comes as the district continues to investigate the New Beginnings Schools Foundation for allegedly inflating John F. Kennedy High School students’ grades from failing to passing. The allegations at Kennedy led to the discovery of numerous other problems at the Gentilly high school, where about half the senior class learned they had not been eligible for diplomas when they walked across the stage at commencement. The New Beginnings board also commissioned its own investigation in April but recently declined a request from WWL-TV for its findings, citing potential law enforcement investigations into the school. 

It’s unclear if a policy banning failing grades presents a problem on its own. Some schools have ‘no zero’ policies to ensure a missed assignment doesn’t tank a student’s class average, for example giving a score of 50 on missed assignments. 

State law allows other individuals, such as school principals or other administrators, to change a teacher’s grade “only upon it being determined that the grade is an error or that the grade is demonstrably inconsistent with the teacher’s grading policy.”

Financial management 

The Coghill grade directive warning may have contributed to an escalated “level two” warning issued later in June. That letter said that the district had “previously cited Better Choice Foundation regarding its board members involvement in daily activities at the school.”

“A charter board is tasked with governing a charter school, not running the school’s daily operations,” Peterson’s June 28 level two warning said. 

That letter also detailed financial management concerns at the school. Those included potentially inappropriate reimbursements to Jones — the same board member who sent the email banning failing grades — as well as a computer purchase using federal funding that violated board policy, teacher appreciation day expenses of $8,709 and violations of district policy regarding alcohol consumption.

At a board meeting earlier this spring, the charter group ratified a purchase of four computers for $5,892 using federal funding. The district believes the charter board was in violation of its own policies. 

“At the time the computers were purchased, there was no board approval, which seems to be required for purchases in excess of $5,000,” Peterson wrote. 

Nearly $9,000 in expenses related to Teacher Appreciation Day also caught the eye of district officials. Purchases included $2,902 for catering, $2,000 in gift cards and $260 for alcohol, according to the district.  

Peterson said the charter board “may be in violation of the Louisiana Constitution in that the costs associated with Teacher Appreciation Day could constitute an unconstitutional donation given the large expense that amounts to a gift to employees.” She noted the gift cards could violate state ethics law if they were considered a gift  “received by a public employee for their regular employment.”

If Better Choice Foundation can’t justify the reimbursements to Jones, Peterson wrote, the charter group “shall submit a written explanation of how these funds were paid back to them by Dr. Jones.”

In response to the elevated warning, the district told Coghill to submit a series of information and documentation. The district is reviewing documents submitted by the charter group but it’s unclear if all required documents have been turned in.

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